The History of the History PhD in the United Kingdom

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Last Friday, 28 January, the Institute for Historical Research in London convened a one day conference on the topic of the History PhD: Past, Present and Future in partnership with the History Subject Centre at the Higher Education Academy and the Royal Historical Society. The IHR has also mounted a virtual exhibition as a companion to the conference. The conference formed a part of the IHR’s yearlong ninetieth birthday celebration, which highlights other important milestones of 1921, the year the of the IHR’s founding, including the birth of the eminent historian of Victorian England, Asa Briggs, the founding of the first of Marie Stopes birth clinics and the birth of Prince Philip. 1921 was also the year that the first PhDs in history were awarded at Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford.

The conference opened with a keynote address from Michael Bentley of the University of St. Andrews. Bentley posed important questions about the PhD both in terms of its history and its present function. Asking what the British PhD was intended to measure in the early twentieth century, Bentley compared it to the degree in Germany, where is was intended as a rite of passage into the profession and the United States, where it was originally seen as a particular moment of scholarly excellence and not necessarily entrance to the academic profession, finding that the British PhD performed a role in between these two systems. Bentley also noted the class dimension to the PhD in Britain, noting that it was not considered gentlemanly to earn a PhD. Describing the PhD as a “modernist project” in a changed epistemological climate, Bentley concluded by asking whether the PhD degree as it currently stands remains the appropriate way to enter the profession.

A panel focusing on “The PhD Past” included historians from each of the first institutions to award a PhD in the United Kingdom. Ewan Cameron of the University of Edinburgh explained that the first two history PhDs awarded at Edinburgh went to Canadians. Janet Howarth of Oxford argued that the PhD was first introduced at Oxford, largely to lure American students away from German universities in the years after the First World War. Both noted that it was not until the 1950s that the degree became a necessary qualification for an academic historian. Stuart Jones and Christopher Golden of Manchester’s discussion of the early years of the history PhD at Manchester focused on the surprising number of women in the first cohort of historians in the 1920s. Twelve out of eighteen students were women. Jones and Golden proposed a number of potential reasons for this unusual gender ratio. Professor T. F. Tout, a prominent professor at Manchester and his family were strong promoters of women’s education and his daughter Margaret Tout was one of the early Manchester PhD students. Manchester was well-endowed with graduate fellowships compared to the women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, attracting more women, including several who had completed undergraduate degrees at Oxford. Finally, the professional qualification of the PhD may have been more important for women trying to prove themselves in a largely male-dominated profession. Perhaps understandably for a conference of historians, the conference was strongest on the history of the degree, though other panels on the present and future of the profession were also stimulating and may well be the subjects of future posts.

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2 Responses to “The History of the History PhD in the United Kingdom”

  1. Justin Bengry Says:

    Jean, it sounds like a great panel. And I think it could be a really useful way of understanding where to take the PhD in the future, by looking at what it offered in the past.

    If the PhD was not seen as a necessary entry into the profession of history, what typically did graduates expect to get out of it?

    This is an important question today when most people entering a PhD will not get stable tenure-track jobs in the profession of history. We have to consider where else our skills and credentials will be valued. We also need to openly have this conversation in history departments, rather than continuing the fallacy that everyone would/should become professors.

    And by looking at what paths the PhD opened in the past, perhaps we can be more open to exploring opportunities in the future.

  2. Jean Smith Says:

    Justin, The question of what typical graduates expected to get out of the PhD before it was a required qualification is an interesting one. Ewan Cameron mentioned that it was often a prerequisite for other careers such as archivists and noted that in Scotland at least it was not unusual for people to shift between working in archives and museums and in universities. As I said, for women, it might be to gain an extra credential to help their progress in a largely male dominated environment. Perhaps also it depended on whether historians adhered to what was then called the more “scientific” approach to history, familiar to us today with its rigorous archival research and extensive footnotes.

    I agree absolutely that there should be more discussion about careers outside the academy in history departments.

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